A recap of Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols talk at All Things Open

Extra extra! How to use the press to promote open source

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This is a report from the All Things Open conference, held this year at the Raleigh Convention Center. I attended Steven Vaughan-Nichols session on marketing and using the press in open source—this is a recap.

Before Steven was a journalist, he was a techie. This makes him unusual: a journalist who actually gets technology. Steven is here to tell us that marketing is a big part of your job if you want a successful open source company. He has heard a lot of people saying that marketing isn't necessary anymore. The reason it's necessary is because writing great code is not enough—if no one else knows about it, it doesn't matter. You need to talk with people about the project to make it a success.

We like to talk about open source being a meritocracy—that's not 100% true. Meritocracy is the ideal or a convenient fiction. And meritocracy is only part of the story—it's not just about your programming, it's about getting the right words to the right people so that they know about your project. You need marketing for this reason.

Any successful project needs two things—one you already know—is that it solves a problem that needs a solution. The other part is convincing a significant number of people that your project is the solution to their problem. One problem open source has is that people confuse open source with the community—they are not the same thing. Marketing is getting information about your project to the world. The community is used for defining what the project really is.

Peter Drucker, says "The aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well the product or service fits him and sells itself." Knowing the customer better than they know themselves is not an easy job—but it's necessary to market/sell your product/service. If your project doesn't fit the needs of your audience then it won't go anywhere.

David Packard: "Marketing is too important to be left to the marketing department"—and it really is. There is a tendency to see marketing as a separate thing. Marketing should not be a separate thing—it should be honest about what you do and it should be the process of getting that message to the world. Each person who works on the project (or for the company) is a representative of the product—we are always presenting out product to the world (you might not like it—but it's true). If your name is attached to a project/company then people are going to be watching you. You need to avoid zinging competing products and portray a positive image about you and your product. Even if you don't think what you say is marketing, it is.

Branding is another thing that open source projects don't always think through enough—they think this is trivial. Branding actually does matter! What images and words and name you use to describe your product matter. They will become the shorthand that people see your project as. For example, if you see the Apple logo you know what it's about. In our world of open source there is the Red Hat Shadowman—whenever you see that image you know that means Red Hat and all the associations you have with that. You can use that association in your marketing. People might not know what Firefox is (yes there are people who don't know) but they do recognize the cute little logo.

You can no longer talk just on IRC or online, you have to get out there. You need to go to conferences and make speeches and get the word out to people. And always remember to invite people to participate because this is open source. You have to make an active network and get away from the keyboard and talk to people to get the word out there. At this point you need to start thinking about talking to people from the press.

One thing to say to people, to the press, is a statement that will catch on—a catch phrase that will reach the audience you want to reach. The press are the people to talk to the world at large. These are people who are talking to the broader world—talking to people at Opensource.com and other tech sites is great—but if you want to make the next leap you need to get to these type of people. Don't assume that the press you're talking to don't know what you're talking about—but just because they happen to like open source or what you're talking about—it does not mean that they will write only positive things. The press are critics—they're not really on your side—even if they like you they won't just talk your products up. You need to understand that going in.

Having said all that—you do need to talk to the press at some point. And when you do, you need to be aware of a few things. Never ever call the press—they are always on perpetual deadline—you can't go wrong with email though. When you do send an email be sure to remember to cover a few important things: tell then what you're doing, tell them what's new (they don't care that you have a new employee—they might care if a bigwig quits or is fired), get your message straight (if you don't know what you're doing then the press can't figure it out), and hit it fast (tell them in the first line what you're doing, who your audience is and why the world should care). Be sure to give the name of someone they can call and email for more info—this can't be emphasized enough—so often Steven has gotten press releases without contact info on them. Put the info on your website—make sure that there is always a contact in your company for the press. Remember if your project is pretty to send screenshots—this will save the press a lot of time in installing and getting the right images. Steven says "You need to spoon feed us".

You also want to be sure to know what the press person you're contacting writes about—do your homework—don't contact them with your press release if it's not something they write about. Also be sure to speak in a language that the person you're talking to will understand (I know I always shy away from terms like OPAC and ILS when talking to the press). Not everyone you're talking to has experience in technology. Don't talk down to the press, just be sure to talk to the person in words they understand. Very carefully craft your message—be sure to give people context and tell them why they should care—if you can't tell them that there they can't tell anyone else your story.

Steven's final point was to remember to be sweet and charming when talking to the press. When the press says something that bothers you, don't insult them. If you alienate the press, they will remember. In the end the press has more ink/pixels than you do—their words will have a longer reach than you do. If the press completely misrepresents you, be sure to send a polite note to the person explaining what was wrong—without using the word ‘wrong.' Be firm, but be polite.

Originally posted on Nicole's blog What I Learned Today as ATO2014: Open source, marketing and using the press. Reposted under Creative Commons.

About the author

Nicole C. Baratta - Nicole C. Baratta (Engard) is a Content Strategist at Red Hat. She received her MLIS from Drexel University and her BA from Juniata College. Nicole volunteers as the Director of ChickTech Austin. Nicole is known for many different publications including her books “Library Mashups", "More Library Mashups", and "Practical Open Source Software for Libraries". Nicole can be reached at ncbaratta@gmail.com.